What do you get when a great team, a record-setting game and a history-making event converge one night? An unforgettable experience. Most of the time, a basketball game is just a game. But then there are those times in which a basketball game becomes more than a game, and history is being made.
The Leesville High School 1969-70 basketball team was special, not just because of its stellar performance, but because it was the first integrated team to set foot on the Leesville court.
Following the football season, the highly controversial desegregation of schools in Vernon Parish began, and the African-American students of Vernon High School were to be bussed over to the predominantly white Leesville High School.
The basketball season was just getting started.
Vernon High senior players Robert Blow, a six-foot, two-inch shooting guard, and Mose Tinsley Jr., a six-foot, one-inch muscular rebounder, joined the all white Leesville High School team along with returning senior lettermen McDonald, Steve Laurence, a six-foot, one-inch defensive ace, and Greg Berwick five-feet-tall playmaker.
Together they made up the starting five – the first integrated team in history to play on that court.
Senior guard Blow remembers. “There was a short time when I came over to Leesville High and practiced with the team. I was familiar with Coach (Richard) Reese. I remember him as a fair man. I guess they knew all of this was going to happen – the integration – when the students from Vernon would be bussed over to Leesville High,” Blow said.
On that momentous night, the Leesville High School Gymnasium was packed. Basketball fans from around the area had traveled to watch the visiting Tioga Indians take on the Wampus Cats in an important 3-AA District game.
Going into the game with a 10-1 district record, a victory would tie the Cats with the Pineville Rebels.
Earlier in district play, each team had won on their home floor.
Included in the crowd that night was the Pineville head coach Bobby Rucker and his team, who had come to scout the Cats in case a playoff game would be needed to determine the district championship.
The Cats were riding high after a recent victory over district foe Natchitoches High School, played in what Blow called the "crackerbox gym.”
“I'm numb,” Blow said, according to the Leesville Daily Leader at the time, after he made two foul shots with no time remaining on the clock against Natchitoches.
Those two shots won the game for the Wampus Cats. “We have a great team. Everybody helps everybody. I'm just glad I made the foul shots,” Blow said.
When asked for his comments, Reese said, “What can I say to add to that? Natchitoches has a fine ball club. But so are the Wampus Cats. I'm proud of them, and I know everyone else in Leesville is, too.” And yes, we were proud!
That night Blow had 12 points and six rebounds. McDonald had 22 points and four rebounds. Greg Berwick hit 13 points and six rebounds.
The following Friday night the Cats hosted Tioga for another 3-AA game, and the fans got their money's worth courtesy of McDonald, the six-foot, one-inch senior forward.
“I couldn't miss a shot,” McDonald recalls. “I was going in for a layup and lost control of the ball and threw it off my elbow, and it went in! It was just one of those nights – it did not matter. It was just crazy.”
Toward the end of the fourth quarter with a large lead, Reese pulled the starters, then realized that McDonald was close to breaking the school’s single game scoring record. So, he put him back in.
“I remember Bill Broyles and the other non-starters were trying to feed me the ball to make the shot to set the record. It took me five or six shoots before making that one shot to beat the record. I began to feel the pressure!” McDonald said.
The new record was set – 46 points. Remember, this was in four eight-minute quarters with no three-point circle.
Amazingly, in the crowd that night along with Reese were former stars Dale Hardwick and Richard Schwartz.
Schwarts was keeping the official game book. Hardwick had set the record at 40 points in 1959.
Reese had 41 points in 1961 at Jena, Schwartz had 43 in 1964 at home against Newton, Texas, and now McDonald had broken the record with 46.
In addition, at least two Wampus Cats sharpshooters were present as well. Asa Skinner had scored 41 – two points shy of Schwartz's mark – and Shelton Hickerson scored 44 – again only two points off McDonald's 46.
Reflecting back on the Tioga game, McDonald said, “The next morning when I woke up, I am like a kid in a candy store. Man, I scored 46. I went around town to buy all the state papers and I know I have to be the leading scorer in the state last night. I'm just a hyped-up, proud as hell.
“And guess what? I open the papers and the first thing I see? Greg Procell scores 100 points against Elizabeth High for Ebarb High School. I just sat down. I can remember it like yesterday thinking nobody knows what this kid did, ‘cause I knew what I had to do to score 46. I will never forget that night.”
The next day in the Alexandria Town Talk newspaper, the Pineville High School coach was quoted as saying, “We plan to give McDonald his 30 points and shut down the other four.”
Leesville and Pineville played a game the following week to determine the district championship.
The game was played in the Prather Coliseum on the campus of Northwestern State in Natchitoches.
Blow remembered the game. “I was mesmerized playing in the coliseum, a huge building,” he said. “My game was really off, but I did okay. I can't remember the score by which we lost the game.”
Ironically, McDonald scored exactly 30 points in the game.
In the state playoffs a week later, the Cats as the second place team in district, traveled to DeRidder to play the 4-AA district champs. After leading for much of the game, the Cats lost to the eventual State Champions Dragons.
DeRidder later defeated Pineville 57-52 in the finals for the AA state championship.
Reese recently reflected upon this history-making team. “After Vernon High finished their football season, they closed Vernon High School and the African-American students were then enrolled at Leesville High,” he said. “The team had been practicing and maybe played a few games, but not many.
“Players from Vernon High School joined the team. It took a little time to gel, but we got it going. We finished 23-11, which was pretty good considering we got off to a slow start.”
McDonald, who now lives in New Orleans and works in management with Churchill Downs, Inc. recalled, “The team got off to a slow start that season, but we finished strong, ending up 23-11. We had a great team, though it took us a while to get to know each other.
“It was a very awkward time in all of our lives. But Blow and I became good friends.”
Blow also reflected on the team. “Gary was just amazing to watch. He'd shoot those set shots 25 to 30 feet out. Sometimes I would be watching with my mouth open.
“Mose had been a football player at Vernon. He was strong, a great rebounder (credited with 16 rebounds in two different district games), and hustle player. Greg was the playmaker and assist man. Steve was an all round player. My game was different. I let the game come to me. I was a team player.”
And where are they all now?
“After the season with former Louisiana College alum Richard Reese's encouragement, I visited Louisiana College coach Billy Allgood, who wanted me to sign with them,” McDonald said. “He also wanted to sign Blow, who he thought could start for him. Instead I decided to go up to New York where I played for two years."
Blow did decide to visit Louisiana College in Pineville. But, declining their invitation, he said, “I had bad memories of Pineville – negative actions and words during the game.”
He remembers the offensive insults and racial slurs he had experienced playing games away from Leesville. “I had never experienced anything like that before,” he said. “Besides, I was the only black person they were recruiting.”
Blow instead decided to enroll at Northwestern State in Natchitoches. He graduated with a major in Sociology. After graduation he was a group supervisor/counselor in a group home in Atlanta, Georgia, for youth whose parents had deserted them.
Later, he would join the Atlanta Fire Department where he served from 1980 until his retirement in December 2006.
He now enjoys time in Atlanta with his children and grandchildren, and in Leesville where he has family and owns property.
Reese recently reflected upon this barrier-breaking, historic team. “I felt like it was a positive influence for the whole school,” he said. “It gave us focus during a time when there was quite a lot of tension.
“A lot of schools were going through it at the time. But I really feel that the success of the basketball season helped us to focus on something positive. It was a good factor in accomplishing the total integration of the school. We had very few problems, especially compared with other schools.”
On that unforgettable night of nights in 1970, we may have won the game. But we, the first integrated team in Vernon Parish, had a valuable victory worth so much more.